Parashat Chaye Sarah: Do men want their wives to be their mothers? The case of Isaac and Rebecca.
I’m taking a risk tonight by speaking about a potentially controversial and divisive topic. Race Relations? The Middle East? Immigration? None of these I am relieved to say. Instead my topic, based upon the Torah portion Haye Sarah, is something deeper and more perplexing in the annals of human events. Do men want their wives to be in part like their mothers?
The Torah portion describes the directives that the aging Patriarch Abraham hands down to his chief of staff Eliezer to find a wife for his son Isaac. To cut to the chase Eliezer travels back to Padan Aram-the old country- on this journey to find the perfect match for his Patriarch’s cherished son. He meets up at a well with the lovely young maiden Rebecca and believes that she is the exact one, the B’shert, for Isaac. After negotiations with Rebecca’s family, Rebecca decides to accept the invitation to be Isaac’s wife. Rebecca journeys back with Eliezer to meet him and to assume her duties as matriarch of the Abrahamic clan.
The Torah then says, “And Rebecca lifted up her eyes and when she saw Isaac, she lighted off the camel. She had said to the servant, ‘what man is this who walks in the field to meet us?’
And the servant had said, “It is my master”; therefore she took a veil and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all things that he had done. And Isaac brought her to his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebecca, and she became his wife; and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death” (Genesis 24:61-67).
Does this text intimate that his new wife was replacing his mother? How does he see his new wife? Is she his mate or a surrogate for his mother? Or was her role two-fold? Was he ready for a wife, a life partner? Or did he seek out a woman who would care for him in not too different a way than his mother had done do for him since his youth? I have heard the old expression, “I want a girl that’s just like the girl that married dear old dad?” Really? Is that what men are really searching for, that is, a woman will play both roles that of the intimate as well as the caretaker like a mother and fulfill the same kinds of functions that his mother performed for him? Is this typical or atypical of what most men secretly if not unconsciously want in the role of the wife?
In one Midrash (Genesis Rabbah) based upon chapter 24:67, “Isaac brought her into his mother’s tent and behold she was like his mother Sarah.” In different ways the sages give examples of how Sarah was able to have the divine cloud of glory over her tent, her doors were open to wayfarers, the dough she used to bake was blessed by god, and a light was always on in her tent from one Sabbath to the next. All these things stopped after Sarah died and they all miraculously returned as soon as Rebecca assumed her place in her deceased mother in-law’s tent. Finally, the Midrash concludes by saying that when Isaac saw all these blessings return in his mother’s tent with Rebecca he knew that “she was like his mother Sarah” (Genesis Rabbah).
This midrash opens even more questions not just about how men in those times believed their spouses were supposed to be like their mothers but it also raises the question for men today who are searching for a wife. Has anything changed after all these millennium? I have heard countless times women today say jokingly that their husbands are kids and that they feel they have to be the parent to the men as they do to their children. Men usually roll their eyes and shrug their shoulders symbolizing a kind of half hearted acknowledgment of the truth about this role their wives play.
Today we are living in an age when marriage in the secular world represents new expectations about how couples care for each other. Of course the traditional kind of role still exists when the man is the provider and the woman cares for him and his children as primary care parent. We know, on the other hand, the division of labor has changed radically over the last few decades as men and women have begun to work at their jobs and split the duties of nurturing each other and the children.
Sure the economics have changed the way we live today with most couples working. My question is that at the end of the day do women still hold onto the primary care role for their spouse and children? Is it a matter of biology or social conditioning? Sometimes men have a hard time understanding their own expectations regarding women being their life partners versus the role of caretaker to them and to the family. Women are well aware of this dilemma and are quick to tell me that they absolutely do not want to be seen as his mother nor want to replace her even though in many cases they end up in that role.
Many women tell me, for example, that they believe men have a hard time living on their own especially if their wives pass away. Thus they need a woman to take care of them! One receives the impression that Isaac was lost when Sarah died. Maybe that is another reason why it is written in the early chapters of Genesis,” that it Is not good for a man to be alone.” Other patriarchs like Jacob were blessed with two wives. Even after Sarah died, the Torah tells us that Abraham married Keturah and had many children with her.
Marriage for the younger generation is changing in terms of roles, work responsibilities and parenting. More and more we see that whether the reasons stem from economic demands or a greater consciousness about how women and men relate to each other that men and women are reevaluating and adapting to new paradigms for emotional support. Does that mean that men will become more independent of their need for a woman’s nurturing as it will be that women will be less dependent on a man to take care of her in the traditional sense of the term? Will the future Jewish family be better off in the long run?
That future is here now. Clearly Isaac goes on to have children with Rebecca. Yet one receives the impression that Isaac never became the leaders his father or his son would be. We cannot conclude it had anything to do with never quite recovering from his mother Sarah’s death. He was, however, able to move forward and make a life for himself and his family.
We are living in a new age when many different models for woman and men taking care of each other abound. Men are challenged today to figure out what they want and what they need from a partner. How they react to changing realities and to history will make all the difference between successful and troubled relationships in the future.